THE Nationality and Borders Bill has passed into law, after a final string of attempts from the House of Lords to soften its treatment of asylum-seekers was rejected systematically by MPs before Parliament was prorogued on Thursday.
This included a proposal from the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, to protect the rights of asylum-seekers who are being offshored to third-party countries. This was rejected pre-emptively by the Lords after the Government whipped the vote.
Dr Walker had been contributing to a four-hour ping-pong debate on the Nationality and Borders Bill on Tuesday night. By its conclusion, peers had voted in favour of three amendments: to make the provisions of the Bill compliant with the 1951 Refugee Convention; that refugees not be reprimanded for stopping briefly in another country en route to the UK; and that asylum-seekers be permitted to work while their claim was assessed by the Home Office.
These were supported in votes by Dr Walker and the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek. The first was passed comfortably by 25 votes, and the second by just eight votes. The last motion, to allow asylum-seekers and their adult dependants to seek employment if a decision on their status had not been reached within six months of applying, was passed by a single vote, 220 to 219.
On Wednesday, however, all of these changes were ultimately rejected by MPs when the Bill was, yet again, returned to the House of Commons. After bouncing briefly back to the Lords, where it was finally passed under the whip, the Bill was subsequently passed by the Commons. It was given Royal Assent on Thursday, shortly before Parliament was prorogued so that MPs could prepare plans in advance of the next Queen’s speech on 10 May. Any legislation that had not been passed by then would have been discarded.
The amendment from Dr Walker, supported by the Bishop of Durham, who was away, to include safeguards on proposals to offshore asylum-seekers to a third state, such as Rwanda (News, 22 April), had been introduced in lieu of the series of amendments passed by the Lords last month, which were, however, later rejected by MPs (News, 25 March). Peers rejected it by five votes.
Dr Walker’s motion set out several conditions to be met by the Government before a person could legally be removed to a third state. These included that “the criteria for removal are public, transparent, and non-discriminatory”; that the state to which they were destined should be safe; that the person should be protected, respected, treated fairly, and granted refugee status if needed; and that each year the Secretary of State should report on the number of people removed while their asylum claim was pending, and the cost of this per person.
The Bishop told peers that the motion would also prevent transfers under agreements such as the recent Rwanda-UK memorandum of understanding. This was not legally binding, and “the standards of treatment in the receiving country are unspecified and unenforceable in any court,” he said.
“It is essential that clear minimum standards are set to ensure the UK does not send people we consider to be refugees, both legally and morally, to a country where they may be denied protection and put at risk of refoulement.”
Referring to concerns about Rwanda’s human-rights record, Dr Walker also said that foreign-policy concerns “must not bleed into decisions about what is a safe country to which an asylum-seeker could be sent. We need a clear, independent, and enforceable legal standard.”
He also spoke to a second amendment, which asked the Secretary of State to publish a numerical target for the resettlement of refugees to the UK each year through the UK Resettlement Scheme, guided by local authorities. This did provide a safe route for asylum-seekers, but was inadequate for the level of need, he argued.
“A practicable but flexible resettlement target, published each year, would enable the Home Office to respond swiftly to immediate and intractable refugee crises. Indeed, the creation of an ongoing resettlement programme would also remove uncertainty.”
The motion was not moved, however, because, Government peers argued, the Commons had already rejected a previous Lords amendment on this subject, on the basis that “requiring a numerical target for the resettlement of refugees to the UK each year is neither necessary nor appropriate.”